What is Mercury?

Mercury, also known as HG or quicksilver, is an element that is found in nature, occurring in the air water and soil. It exists in several forms including; elemental/metallic, inorganic mercury compounds and organic mercury compounds. It is the only common metal in a liquid state in normal temperature conditions and it is silvery white in appearance. 

Mercury is liquid in state at normal temperatures
Mercury is liquid in state at normal temperatures

What is Mercury used for?

Mercury is used in a range of industries, but due to concerns over its safety, many uses are being phased out or under review.  

Mercury was largely used as a liquid electrode in the production of chlorine and sodium hydroxide by electrolysis of brine before this was phased out in 2020. 

Currently, it is mainly used in the chemical industry as a catalyst. It is used in the amalgamation of gold during the recovery process from its ores. Mercury hasn’t been completely removed from consumer products with the chemical still being found in; barometers, manometers, batteries, fluorescent lights and some thermometers. 

Mercury thermometers have been largely phased out due to concerns over their toxicity
Mercury thermometers have been largely phased out due to concerns over their toxicity

Mercury Hazards

The routes of exposure for mercury include; inhalation, ingestion and skin and eye contact. 

Inhalation of mercury mists/fumes may produce severely toxic effects. Approximately 80% of inhaled mercury vapour is absorbed through the lungs. Relatively small amounts absorbed from the lungs may prove fatal. 

Ingestion of mercury may be harmful, with the brain and kidneys appearing to carry most of the burden. Following ingestion, symptoms may appear within the first few minutes and can include pain, vomiting and severe purging. The victim may die within a few hours. 

Skin contact with mercury may produce non-allergic dermatitis. Open cuts and wounds should not be exposed to the chemical as entry into the bloodstream will produce more harmful effects.

Eye contact with mercury may produce discomfort characterised by tearing and redness.

Chronic exposure to the chemical by any method has been found to cause tiredness, short term memory loss and tremors of the fingers, hands, arms and even the whole body. 

Mercury Safety

If inhaled, remove the patient from the contaminated area to the nearest fresh air source and monitor their breathing. Lay them down and keep them warm and rested. If the patient is not breathing and you are qualified to do so, perform CPR. Transport to the hospital without delay. 

If swallowed, seek medical attention immediately. Urgent hospital treatment is likely to be needed. If medical attention is more than 15 minutes away, vomiting should be induced (unless instructed otherwise) with the fingers down the back of the throat. Lean the patient forward or place on their left side to prevent aspiration. 

If skin exposure occurs, immediately remove all contaminated clothing, footwear and accessories and cleanse the affected area with plenty of soap and water. Seek medical attention in the event of irritation. 

If the chemical is exposed to the eyes, flush the eyes out immediately with fresh running water, remembering to wash under the eyelids. Removal of contact lenses should only be done by a skilled individual. Transport to the hospital without delay.

Mercury Safety Handling

Emergency eyewash fountains should be accessible in the immediate area of the potential exposure to the chemical and adequate ventilation should be available (install local exhaust if necessary).

The PPE recommended when handling mercury includes; safety glasses with side shields, chemical goggles, respirators, pvc boots, PVC gloves, PVC aprons, overalls and a PVC protective suit. 

It is recommended you shower before changing back into your regular clothing and that work clothing and your regular clothing are kept separate to minimise contamination.

Refer to your SDS for more information on how you can safely handle mercury. If you need to author your own SDS, find out more about our self authoring tool here.

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